Our evergreen series finally showcases the Green Scar himself with ‘Planet Hulk,’ originally published in “The Incredible Hulk” Vol. 2 #92-105. With the release of Thor: Ragnarok, there’s no better time to look back on Greg Pak’s seminal story, undoubtedly the most beloved Hulk comic of the 21st century, and which began a long saga by Pak about Bruce Banner’s family and friends that continues today.
Written by Greg Pak
Pencilled by Carlo Pagulayan
Savage alien planet. Oppressed barbarian tribes. Corrupt emperor. Deadly woman warrior. Gladiators and slaves. Battle axes and hand blasters. Monsters and heroes… and the Incredible Hulk!
In 2006, Marvel deemed it best to exclude the Hulk from their crossover event that year, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s “Civil War.” Enter Greg Pak, who had used the character in the Neil Gaiman spin-off “1602: New World,” and “Amazing Fantasy” #15. ‘Planet Hulk’ informs us from its opening narration that is a flashback filling us in on where the Hulk is during “Civil War,” and that he does return to Earth. It’s a status quo rather than a story, and as such the writing and art is easier to break down by each individual arc.
The first, ‘Exile,’ wastes no time establishing Sakaar’s society while getting the Hulk to become a gladiator. Pak acknowledges our familiarity with films like Spartacus and it’s refreshing how, as decompressed storytelling had become vogue, he and Carlo Pagulayan eschewed it. Pagulayan strolls through the familiar story, casually switching from epic, widescreen shots to incredibly narrow close-ups of dialogue.
As a result, the art varies wildly from extravagant to deeply sketchy. Thinly drawn crowd scenes jut against gorgeously colored panels of guest star the Silver Surfer. It’s also fascinating how narrow the Hulk’s face is drawn early on – with comically big teeth – or how pronounced the cheekbones and temples of the Imperial Sakaarans are. Korg doesn’t wear a skirt in these four issues, and Pagulayan awkwardly composes shots to hide his legs despite his stone skin effectively standing-in for pants.
The Hulk behaves indifferently throughout this Gladiator remake, as he’s afraid of being betrayed again: if ‘Planet Hulk’ feels familiar, it’s because it is a celebration of the Hulk’s history. Pak constantly recalls Bill Mantlo’s run where the Hulk was accepted as a hero, only to lose everything and be banished to the Crossroads dimension. ‘Banner War,’ an interlude from “Giant-Size Hulk” included in the trade, also points out the parallels with the Hulk’s doomed romance with Jarella during the 1970s. Pak also imbues the Hulk with as much wit as his brutish, scrappy personality allows, giving us one-liners like “Hulk slash,” and “have a sandwich.”
Part two, ‘Anarchy,’ is drawn by Lopresti, who renders the Hulk with a more handsome mug than Pagulayan. He also doesn’t jump as haphazardly between panel sizes, rarely breaking into two-page spreads, and often making great use of borderless panels with no backgrounds. Sometimes the gutters are rendered with a single appropriate color, greatly conveying the length of time the Hulk spends as a revolutionary, and the diversity of his adventure’s locations. Danny Miki and Sandu Florea’s inking also greatly conveys the different textures of the various species on Sakaar, which pays off gruesomely well when the Red King unleashes the parasitic Spikes.
The main conflict in this arc is between the Hulk and Miek, who as a feeble Sakaaran drone strives to emulate the green strongman. But as the Hulk is, deep down, a docile creature who just wants to be left alone, his reluctance to fulfil the prophecy of the Sakaarson souring their relationship. The bug asks, “How can he be stopping what he made for doing?”
It’s a worthwhile question: how can the Hulk ever find peace when he was designed by Marvel to be the furious engine of a neverending serial? Ultimately, he becomes invested in the fight because of his playful enmity with the Red King’s enforcer Caiera, who turns on him when he decides children are worth collateral damage. Like a wrestler, the Hulk declares vengeance on the Red King in a live broadcast. The tyrant, glaring at the reader, replies, “Bring it on.”Continued below
The third chapter, ‘Allegiance,’ is split between Pagulayan and Lopresti, with Gary Frank filling in on for some of the former’s pages. Frank, a veteran of Peter David’s “Incredible Hulk” run, portrays the hero with such soulful eyes that you can’t help but wonder how he may have drawn the entire story. Pagulayan meanwhile, draws the Hulk with a wider face, letting his big expressive brow breathe. Lopresti gets to draw the Hulk’s defeat of the Red King and the culmination of his romance with Caiera, lavishing attention on both. The Hulk ultimately defeats the Red King not in combat, but by using his strength to stop his explosive plot, and then bringing peace with his gamma-irradiated body and blood. The Spikes leech off him like participants in Communion, and he uses his strength as a buffer between bickering factions, his spear-struck body resembling Saint Sebastian. The prophesized World Breaker would defy his destiny.
It’s finally during ‘Allegiance’ that we see Banner. Pak’s Hulk stories – starting with “1602: New World” – are typically an argument that Banner, not the Hulk, embodies the character’s malevolent side. In contrast, Bruce is almost completely absent from ‘Planet Hulk.’ ‘Banner War’ has him appearing in a dream, where he represents the Hulk’s self-loathing borne of loneliness on Earth, symbolizing the acceptance he achieves on Sakaar. In the story proper, Banner is shown to Caiera by the Hulk in a moving display of vulnerability, which ensures she genuinely falls in love with him. A nine-panel grid of emotional close-ups leaves the reader breathless as he reveals his true self to her, and it’s spine-tingling. The notion of the Hulk having sex could have been utterly risible, but it’s romantic, erotic without being explicit, even with the utterly obvious imagery of Banner’s arm transforming back into the Hulk’s as he clasps her back.
Pagulayan drew the final two issues in the story, ‘Armageddon,’ where the Hulk’s new life on Sakaar is brought to an abrupt end when the warp core on the ship that brought him there explodes. In a devastating parallel of the atomic explosion that created him, the explosion kills everyone in the Sakaaran capital but the Hulk. Alone, he screams “Bring. Them. Back,” while tearing the blasted landscape apart. It’s heartbreaking, and terrifying, because a grieving Hulk is undoubtedly more dangerous than one who is merely grumpy. Each word of his anguished cry is punctuated by its own panel: letterer Randy Gentile should be proud.
But who is the Hulk asking to bring back his queen, their unborn children, and their subjects? Is it God? Is it the plotters at Marvel? Is the readers for forever reading his stories and denying him a definitive happy ending? In the end, the Hulk became emotionally invested in Sakaar and was punished because superheroes can never settle down and find peace. Setting off to gain revenge on the Illuminati, it seems the Hulk is out to punish them for tantalizing him with a happy ending as much as he intends to avenge his beloved.
In a way, ‘Planet Hulk’ is the character’s own Ragnarok, for it is both an apocalyptic finale and a rebirth for the character, ending the character’s sense of persecution, and commencing a cycle of proud retribution and revenge. No longer would Banner be a meek fugitive in Middle America, letting Tony Stark and Reed Richards reign scientifically supreme: now he was a vengeful king, and a thorn in the Illuminati’s schemes.
I mentioned earlier that Pak wrote the Hulk in a story (pencilled by Miyazawa) for the “Amazing Fantasy” revival, which happened to be the debut of his own self-insert, and eventual Hulk himself, Amadeus Cho. It’s placed at the end of the trade with another interlude (drawn by Frank), which explores the Hulk’s intrinsic appeal to someone like Cho. We recognize he’s a no-holds barred middle finger to bullies like Richards, a hero who continues to be one despite his rejection by society at large. This is before “World War Hulk,” the true conclusion of ‘Planet Hulk,’ where Cho realizes his hero’s defiance can be as destructive and harmful as the Illuminati’s arrogance, but until then, we’re left longing for someone like him who can just smash evil. ‘Planet Hulk’ does what all superhero stories should do: it leaves us wanting even more of its star.